They Never Promised Us a Rose Garden

Suddenly, October’s outlook has been replaced with September’s struggling.

Since the calendar flipped to the ninth month of the year, the Cardinals have lost three straight games for the first time since July 11-14, the last three games of Mike Matheny‘s tenure.  Their semi-comfortable lead as the first wild-card team has been replaced by hanging on for dear life to the second one.  The division, at one time at least theoretically possible, seems well gone now with the Cubs up 5.5 with less than four weeks to play.

The sports car that was cruising at top speed hit a speed bump and has started careening out of control.  We wait to see if the driver can wrestle it back onto the straightaway.  This truly is the first test of Mike Shildt’s young career as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals.  Everyone loves you when you are winning at least two of three and bringing a team back from the dead.  They aren’t as fond when rigor mortis starts to show again.

Let’s at least cut the team and the manager a bit of slack, though.  They’ve been playing what has been basically playoff baseball for two or three weeks now.  Playing with that energy and that pressure is going to get to you after a while.  Doesn’t mean that they can’t regroup and, in truth, you’d rather hit that bump now with time to make it up rather than at the very end of the month.  Still, it was a rough weekend and folks have started to grump and pull out the “I told you they couldn’t keep this up” card.

All right, let’s get into the games.  At least there was one of them that was a good one.  Maybe we can figure out a way to get the guys to think they are still playing in August?

Friday (12-5 win vs. Cincinnati)

Hero: Paul DeJong.  It was a big night for the shortstop, getting two hits including a three-run bomb that made it 7-2 and, at least for most of the game, made it a nice comfortable evening.  His two-run single in the eighth wound up giving the Cardinals some more insurance after a Reds rally.  It was the first multi-hit game for DeJong since August 18 against Milwaukee and only his third of the month.

Goat: Brett Cecil.  The bullpen did the team no favors in this one, a refrain we’ll hear again with deeper meaning as we get deeper into the weekend.  Cecil threw a good inning against Pittsburgh and you could be forgiven for thinking that the Colorado game was a bit of a fluke, compounded by an atmosphere that is always tough on pitchers.  Instead, he comes out and gives up two runs himself on a home run to Scott Schebler (a left-handed hitter) and the runner he walked after that scored when Jordan Hicks had his own problems.  Cecil had this happen last year, where he’d have a run of good games followed by three of four that were bad and it seems like whatever his issues, they aren’t entirely fixed yet.

Notes: I still don’t completely trust Hicks in games at the moment.  There are times where he comes in and just dominates.  We’ll never forget that ninth against Los Angeles where he struck out the side on 100 mph pitches that batters just couldn’t handle.  Unfortunately, there seem to be more outings where he’s giving up hits and walks and even if they don’t score, that’s not really what you want to see out of your eighth inning guy.  He didn’t give up his own run here, but he did let Cecil’s runner score as he gave up two hits and a walk.  A quick look at his game log for the last month or so and it’s almost an alternating pattern of getting everyone out, then giving up a number of base runners.  Young pitching is erratic, relief pitching is erratic, so it’s not surprising young relief pitching is erratic.  Plus we’re hitting the end of the season and Hicks only has one minor league season under his belt.  It would not be surprising if fatigue plays a part here as well.

The reason that three-run eighth wasn’t a huge deal (though it did make things a little scary for a bit) was in part because the offense got to Homer Bailey (and then shut down until the bottom of the eighth) but more because Austin Gomber continued to show he’s a viable major league option.  He allowed a couple of runs in the first then nothing else through seven innings.  He gave up 10 hits, which is a lot, but four of those were in the first and he didn’t walk a batter.  A few starts like that and maybe he can return to being Joe Schwarz’s favorite pitcher.

Plenty of offense in this one, though it was very clustered.  Four in the second, three in the third, five in the eighth.  Gomber got a couple of RBI to tie the game and then Matt Carpenter went yard to give the Cards their lead.  DeJong had the three-run blast, then the floodgates opened in the eighth.  I told my Meet Me at Musial cohost Allen Medlock before we recorded that they’d probably come out after Cincy made it 7-5 and score three after being quiet for so long, basically waking up to the shot taken at them.  They did more than I thought and, given how the rest of the weekend went for Bud Norris, maybe that was a good thing.

Jose Martinez went two-for-two with three walks.  It was about this time where I starting hearing talk of him winning the batting title.  I’ll admit, I’ve not paid attention to any of the statistical raises (though it’s hard to avoid the fact that Carpenter leads the league in home runs) but it was interesting that he was in the mix.  However, like so many things, maybe we should have just kept that in the corner of our eye and not directly looked at it.  Since then, things have not gone well for Jose.

Yairo Munoz also had two hits and drove in two in the eighth.  The silver lining with Kolten Wong and Jedd Gyorko out is that Munoz has an open field to play right now and he’s taking advantage of it.

Saturday (4-0 loss vs. Cincinnati)

Hero: Tyson RossDaniel Poncedeleon ran his hitless inning streak against the Reds to 10.1, dating back to his major league debut, before the Reds finally got a tally on him.  The problem was, he didn’t get another out.  Once the Reds had his measure, they didn’t lose it and three doubles, two singles, and a walk later it was 3-0 and the bases were loaded with one out.

Enter Ross.  He got a comebacker for a 1-2-3 double play to get out of that jam and then basically cruised the rest of the way, giving up a run in the seventh after a leadoff double from Scott Schebler, who always seems to be a guy that causes trouble for St. Louis.  Ross wound up going 4.2 innings and allowing just the one run and even got a flare base hit while he was in there, which turned out to be 50% of the Cardinal hit total.  It’s possibly a small sample and you hate to get too tied into those and discount what he did the rest of the season (and the last couple of years) but right now, I’d be interested in Ross returning in 2019 as a veteran long relief/spot starter presence.  I know there’s a roster crunch and a lot of arms so it may be tough to work but so far he’s been nothing but impressive.

Goat: You could give it to Poncedeleon, but honestly three runs against the Reds normally shouldn’t be too much of an issue.  Luis Castillo was dealing, though, and the offense couldn’t get any purchase.  You probably have to give the Goat to Jose Martinez if you are looking at the offense, because Martinez went 0-4 with three strikeouts and left five men on base.  He had Carpenter on in the first but struck out and had Yadier Molina on in the fourth and grounded into a force out.  He also struck out to end the inning after Ross’s single.

Notes: Of course, there were plenty of strikeouts.  Castillo had 11 in his time and Raisel Iglesias had three in the four outs he tallied.  With Castillo on, it’s not surprising that the Cardinals struggled and they couldn’t get him out soon enough to really get into the weak area of the Reds’ bullpen unfortunately.  It was one of those nights and perhaps Mike Shildt could have gotten Poncedeleon a batter or two sooner, but it wouldn’t have made a difference in the long run, I don’t believe.  You never know if the approach by either side is different at 2-0 than 3-0 but I imagine it wouldn’t have changed much.

Sunday (6-4 loss in 10 vs. Cincinnati)

Hero: Harrison Bader.  He drove in the first Cardinal run of the game with a double in the fourth and tied the game up in the eighth with a single that scored pinch-runner Adolis Garcia.

Goat: Jose Martinez.  You have to look at the bottom of the ninth as the biggest part of this game.  The Cardinals had gotten down early, tied it up at two.  Then Billy Hamilton leads off the seventh on a ball hit to Martinez (who may have been a little too deep for the popgun that is Hamilton’s bat) and made it to second without a serious play.  Hamilton then comes around to score, but as noted Bader singles in the eighth and the game is tied again.  It felt like those kind of games we’ve seen so often this month, the late rallies to overcome whatever adversity is out there.  So when the ninth started with a Yairo Munoz double, you felt good about their chances.  Matt Carpenter was intentionally walked and then Francisco Pena, looking to sacrifice, actually beat out a bunt single.  So bases loaded, nobody out, a team fired up, and you think that 11th series win is just about in the bag.

Instead…..

Martinez strikes out in a spot where you absolutely can’t strike out.  If you put the ball in play, there’s a chance for a run.  You put the ball in the air, it’s almost guaranteed.  Instead, a strikeout completely changes the complexion of the inning.  Now the pitcher knows he can get out of it with a ground ball.  And while Marcell Ozuna didn’t hit into a double play, they did get the runner at home when he put the ball on the ground.  Paul DeJong then popped out and the threat was over.  The 10th was an anticlimatic but fairly expected letdown.

Notes: In fairness, I didn’t see much of the end of the game as my wife and I were out looking at appliances, which spared me that ninth inning at least.  Bud Norris walked Joey Votto to start the tenth, which, while not what you want to do to lead off an extra inning, is not surprising given that it is Joey Votto (and it could have been worse).  Unfortunately, then he allowed a home run to Eugenio Suarez, who has come into his own as a hitter, to put the Cardinals down two.  If that was all there was, I don’t think I’d worry as much.  Norris hasn’t had a lot of perfect outings, which is something that can eat at the well-being of the fans, but he only had one outing in August (against Washington, which turns out to be a little noteworthy in a bit) where he was charged with a run.  He tends to be wilder than I like at times–he seems to throw that pitch that forces Yadier Molina to reach as high as he can to avoid a wild pitch way too often–but he’s been successful.  Walking Votto isn’t an uncommon thing and Suarez can hit even the best pitchers.

Unfortunately, then he followed it up by allowing a home run to Brandon Dixon.  Dixon is hitting under .200 for his major league career, which consists of less than 100 AB.  He’s got a little pop but Norris should have been able to take care of him.  Maybe he was distracted from putting the Cards behind but you can’t do that, especially when your team will have another shot against the Reds’ bullpen.  He then walked Mason Williams and while he struck out Curt Casali, Brett Cecil had to come in to finish things off.

The extra run was probably not a deal breaker, but when Patrick Wisdom walked to start the bottom of the 10th, it sure looked like it would be.  The Cardinals still tried to rally, getting Wisdom in on a flyout, a passed ball, and a ground out.  Carson Kelly came in to pinch-hit and walked with two outs and Jim Riggleman didn’t worry about putting the winning run on base, walking Matt Carpenter (who almost feels like he’s getting the Mark McGwire in 1998 treatment even though he’s hitting just .230 with two homers since August 15.  I won’t tell if you won’t, though.) and bringing up Francisco Pena, who flew out.

Luke Weaver got the start as the club began trying a six-man rotation to help alleviate the innings on some of these young arms.  It got off to a rocky beginning as Weaver allowed two runs in the first, walking three batters and throwing a wild pitch.  He settled in some after that, throwing three scoreless before leaving for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the fourth with runners at the corners and the game tied.  (Tyler O’Neill struck out, however.)  He had thrown 83 pitches so he probably would have stayed out there for the fifth had his spot not come up and it’s good to see Shildt is still open to those early hooks.

I’m a little surprised that Carlos Martinez was used in the seventh knowing his spot was coming up in the bottom of the frame.  I assume it was about matchups, what with the top of the lineup coming up, but I’d rather have seen Dakota Hudson for one and Martinez for two instead of the other way around.  Not that it affected Hudson at all, who threw two scoreless.

Offensively, Bader and Greg Garcia were the only Cardinals with multiple hits, though they did draw nine walks, three for Carpenter.  Garcia also drove in two runs, including the tying one in the fourth.

Monday (4-3 loss in 10 at Washington)

Hero: Jack Flaherty.  As a rookie going up against Max Scherzer, you’d be forgiven for being a bit rattled.  Instead, Flaherty settled in after allowing a run in the first and cruised through the rest of his five innings.  He did walk five, which is always Flaherty’s bugaboo, but three of those came in the first inning when he allowed his run but escaped with the bases loaded.  After the first, just two hits and two walks as he clung to, at least most of the time, a one run lead.  Folks are starting to put Flaherty in that ace status and he’s really close for me as well, but I think he’s going to have to be able to get into the seventh a few more times and be through six regularly.  Cutting down on the walks will help and I imagine it’ll come in time.

Goat: Bud Norris.  We’ve had this discussion before.  If the Cards score more runs, Norris’s issues don’t matter and he probably isn’t in the game.  However, that’s no guarantee that the team will win.  If Norris does his job yesterday, the Cardinals do win.  That’s the advantage and disadvantage to being the closer.  Going into the ninth with a two-run lead felt pretty good, even with Sunday’s game in our memory.  Walking the leadoff guy again, not so much.  He got a ground ball out but it wasn’t a double play and that gave Bryce Harper a chance to do what Bryce Harper does.  Norris got Anthony Rendon after that when Marcell Ozuna made a diving catch, but then walked Juan Soto and a single to Ryan Zimmerman, putting runners at the corners, and that was the end of his day.  It was the first time he had been pulled from two straight games without finishing them since back in April when Greg Holland was supposed to be closing.

A September bobble does make folks remember Cardinal history, most notably 2006 and 2011.  Both of those seasons, a new closer arose in the late part of the season–Adam Wainwright only got the job about a week before the playoffs–and with the race as tight as it is now, you wonder if they can afford to give Norris much of a leash.  It could be just a hiccup, but three homers in two days is not what you want to see from your closer.

And who takes over if you move him?  Jordan Hicks?  Maybe, but we run into some of the same issues and, as we’ve talked above, the season could be starting to wear on his arm.  If it’s not Hicks, though, who would you want out there in the ninth?  You could play matchups, maybe you move Carlos Martinez to the role, but I don’t know that there’s such an obvious choice that you make that move now.  I think Norris gets another outing to see if he can get back on the horse but if not, the discussion may start in earnest.

Notes: Of course, the real turning point could have been in the eighth.  Patrick Wisdom led it off by being hit by a pitch and he stole second base.  After running the count to 2-0, the Nationals intentionally walked Matt Carpenter.  Yairo Munoz singled but Wisdom was unable to score, so the bases were loaded with nobody out.

How many times does a guy get to come up in this situation twice in two days?  Yet here came Jose Martinez, trying to redeem himself from Sunday’s strikeout.  Instead, he hit into a 4-2-3 double play that basically killed any chance to getting a run.  Marcell Ozuna struck out and there were no insurance runs to be had.  In the last three days, Martinez is 1-10 with seven strikeouts and that double play.  That’s a tough Labor Day weekend, my friends.

Kudos to Munoz for getting a homer off of Scherzer in the sixth and to Paul DeJong for his two-run double in the first that gave the Cards a cushion they didn’t give up until the ninth.

Even with the expanded rosters (hello, John Brebbia, nice of you to join us), the bullpen was probably a little short yesterday.  Tyson Ross, Daniel Poncedeleon, Luke Weaver, and Dakota Hudson were probably all unavailable.  Which meant that, when things went to extras, there wasn’t a lot to back up Chasen Shreve.  You have to appreciate that, even though he walked Wilmer Difo to load the bases, he got out of the ninth by striking out Matt Wieters, but asking him to take care of the 10th as well was a bridge too far.  A double and a single put runners on first and third with no outs and while we’ve seen the Cardinals come away without anything in similar situations, it’s a tough task for any pitcher to get out of that and, indeed, Harper lifted a ball to center with one out to get the run in.

So now what?  Have the Cardinals peaked too early?  Did removing the interim tag make Mike Shildt less of a magician?  (Given the fact that they should have at least split these games and could have easily gone 3-1, I’d make a lot less out of the change in title than some are.)  I don’t know.  We’ve seen the team bounce back from losses but this is a tough hole they’ve dug this weekend.  They do get Miles Mikolas going tonight and they’ve faced the best of the Nationals rotation, so you have to think there’s a good chance–maybe not great, but good–that they can still take this series.  Tonight is about a must-win, though.  They need to get back on their feet and hopefully they will!

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NL Central Standings

TeamWLPct.GB
Cubs9064.584 -
Brewers8867.5682.5
Cardinals8669.5554.5
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Last updated: 09/23/2018

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